Focusing on health care workers' mental health

Health care workers face fatigue and mental stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adobe Stock)
Health care workers face fatigue and mental stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adobe Stock)

While many employees began working from the security of their homes in March, those workers deemed essential — including those in the health care, food and public safety sectors – were still physically reporting to their jobs, serving the community.

Eight months of higher workloads — combined with the impact of the derecho, social unrest, a contentious election season and the fears of higher infection rates — have created a cumulative stress on these essential workers.

Recognizing this, many employers have been making focused efforts to reward and support their workers, in many cases offering free mental health counseling, overtime bonuses and flexible work options, among other benefits, to combat fatigue.

‘Stand Together’

Health care workers have been on the front lines of the pandemic since it began, caring for COVID-19 patients and trying to keep from getting sick themselves even before much information was available on how to do so.

“The We Stand Together campaign was really our response to the pandemic, that whatever we do as an institution, we were going to do together,” said Dr. Theresa Brennan, chief medical officer at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

In some cases, non-clinical staff or clinical staff with lower patient volumes were called on to become screeners at hospital entrances or to help other departments with discharges.

Hospital staff had to increase the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), adding masks, face shields and more to their daily routine.

“That’s fatiguing, just to be putting stuff on and off and having the disruption of having to think about and wear things that we’re not used to wearing,” Brennan said.

One of the most difficult changes for staff, according to Brennan, was the restriction of visitors.


“It makes it harder for our staff because they know that our patients probably do best when they have support systems to help them recover,” Brennan said. “And the challenges of having to talk to somebody and explain to them why we made those changes can make your day harder.”

“All of those things can be really fatiguing, and then you add on all of those things that are going on outside of the hospital, with concerns about the economy, and, of course, we’re in an election year, the derecho, and the protests in the summer. All of those things can impact people more profoundly. And rolled up, it’s just really made this a hard eight months for our health care workers, as well as people in the community.”

Psychiatrists and psychologists at UIHC created a free counseling hotline that any staff person can call 24/7.

The Resilience Committee developed a treat cart to take community donations around to staff and provided Playdoh clay as a hands-on stress reducer.

A number of wellness forums have been offered, covering topics like stress reduction, mindfulness and avoiding substance abuse.

Temporary workers have been hired to fill in when there are staffing shortages to give employees a respite.

UIHC also partnered with Bright Horizons, which has 12 centers in the Corridor, to offer backup child care to staff. All essential employees were given 20 uses at a reduced rate to help those whose child care options were interrupted.

‘All hands staffing support’

At UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, staff saw increased patient volumes after the derecho and are now seeing a spike in COVID-19 patients.

According to Brenda Oehler, the hospital’s director of nursing operations, the hospital has instituted an “all hands staffing support” approach, where staff is cross-trained to work in different areas and can be floated to the areas with the highest needs.


From the beginning of the pandemic in March, the hospital has focused on offering mental health resources for staff, scheduling regular debriefings with behavioral health counselors to let people drop in and share what they’re feeling.

With restrictions limiting visitors, the hospital’s chapel has been re-designated as a quiet space for staff to take a break.

Code Lavender was developed as an emergency response for the emotional support of team members. Any time there is a draining event, like losing a patient or a long code, staffers can call a Code Lavender and behavioral support comes to their location.

“When I get a sense that they’re having a rough time, especially our areas that are caring for our COVID patients consistently through all of this, we’re working with all of our counselor staff to do some added debriefings if needed, allowing them to just vent their frustrations, get ideas of things that they need, whether it’s equipment, more support, more staff, whatever the case may be, and trying to help work with our administrative team to make some of that happen,” Oehler said.

The hospital’s Fun Brigade brought in food trucks over the summer and recognized team members doing a good job wearing their PPE.

The St. Luke’s Foundation has coordinated meal donations from community businesses and individuals and has a treat cart with snacks and drinks that travels throughout the hospital.

St. Luke’s recently started offering extra financial incentives to employees working extra hours or in different areas than they usually work.

“We are working our hardest to get these individuals with COVID healthy again, and many times they’re here for a longer period of time than a typical hospital stay, so you really get to know these patients very well,” Oehler said.


“I think our team feels that we put a lot of effort, a lot of drive and love and support, into getting them better and to getting them home,” she said. “Unfortunately, with this illness, we’re not always successful with that. And I think, over time, that can be the most challenging for our team members. That’s why we’re trying to provide as much support to those team members when that’s happening.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.